Given the progressive, humanist household in which I was raised, I have this embarrassing confession: until ten years ago, when my friend and neighbor Phil Harnden published his book Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light with Thomas Merton, Basho, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard and Others, I had never heard of the Peace Pilgrim.
January 2013 is the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Peace Pilgrim’s journey. Perhaps because of that anniversary, NPR recently aired a profile of her. If you visit the link, you’ll find some wonderful photos and other materials related to her life.
Then, a couple of days after we aired the NPR story, I received an email from Betsy Baker, the former editor of the Potsdam Courier.
“I was only 32 when I wrote (this) piece, still married, with small children. I think I had been working at the Courier about a year. The tone is a bit starry-eyed, but I think it pretty much says what I wanted it to.”
Here’s the piece Betsy wrote, back in 1977, when the Peace Pilgrim visited (that is, walked to and through) the North Country four years before her death in a car accident:
Courier & Freeman, Sept. 6, 1977
Peace Pilgrim: a person the light shines through
BY BETSY BAKER
“Forty years ago I came out of my life of money and things. I changed my life from self-centered to God-centered and began a 15 year preparation for my pilgrimage.”
Those words were spoken by a remarkable woman known only as “Peace Pilgrim.” Since January 1, 1953, she has been walking for peace, throughout the United
States, Canada and parts of Mexico. All her possessions fit into the pockets of the blue tunic she wears; she has no money and accepts none. “I walk until given shelter, I fast until given food,” she says.
In 1964 Peace Pilgrim completed 25,000 miles on foot, measured by the distances on road maps. Since that time she has not counted miles, but she continues to walk, to fill speaking engagements and to answer her correspondence.
Peace Pilgrim no longer uses her former name, and says she stopped counting her age in 1953, but this writer would estimate herage at 80 years. She wears those years lightly, however. Her blue eyes sparkle and she gestures animatedly when she talks; her voice is strong and her step is firm. Optimism about the future she has in abundance. She has accepted speaking engagements well into 1982 and has planned her itinerary to 1984!
During her 15 year preparation Peace Pilgrim first gave away all her possessions, ‘How free I felt,” she commented, and then worked for 10 years at “need level” while doing what she calls her ‘spiritual growing up.’ Then, to the amazement of her friends, she began her pilgrimage.
“They thought when I said I was changing my life I meant that I was moving to a nice, comfortable retirement home,” she said. “When I told them I meant to walk 25,000 miles for peace they told me I wouldn’t last a year.”
Peace Pilgrim has walked without fear for nearly 25 years; the open road, in big cities and small towns, in many situations others would find frightening.
“When you are afraid, you attract to yourself the very things you fear,” she said. “I am not afraid therefore I am safe.”
She also maintains her pilgrimage has kept her health. “Not an ache or a pain or a cold in 40 years,” she said. “I have that amazing energy that comes with inner peace-it never runs out.”
The way is not always easy for a pilgrim, however. Early in her pilgrimage she was arrested for vagrancy, but was released when the judge decided she was, in fact, a religious pilgrim. In the fifties she was also “thoroughly” investigated by the F.B.I.
Invitations to speak and offers of shelter come far in advance now. Peace Pilgrim came to Waddington from Saranac Lake, and by presstime she will have moved on to Evans Mills. While in this area she spoke on campus at St. Lawrence University and Potsdam State, to church groups, North Country Women and the Potsdam Rotary Club.
“At first I spoke to anyone who would listen,” she said “I even preached 12 sermons once, in 12 different churches on the same Sunday!”
Although she says she seldom has time to read, Peace Pilgrim frequently refers to current happenings in her talks and seems well acquainted with the economic and political realities of modern life.
World peace is the main topic of her speeches. The chances for peace are better now than when she began her walk in 1953, she said. “Now people are beginning to realize that modern technology has made peace a matter of survival.”
Peace Pilgrim also talks about the search for inner peace. “When I started out, no one was interested in inner peace,” she commented. “Now, it’s almost a universal search.”
Her religious faith is nondenominational. She uses few conventional religious terms. “The denominational terms divide us,” she said, “and turn our attention from the most important things.” The essence of what she says is very simple: “To find inner peace, realize your full potential as a human being, turn your life over to God.”
Peace Pilgrim has never advised others to follow her life style. “There are many ways to serve God. My way is not for everyone.”
In many ways Peace Pilgrim defies analysis. Most of the things we find necessary hold no interest for her. The possessions which weigh us down she gladly gave away. The good health and long life we seek seem to have been given to her without asking. She does the difficult things in faith, which we seem unable to do easily. She is truly a person the light shines through.
(Reprinted with permission. The author scanned the text from the Northern New York Historical newspapers site.
During this 60th anniversary month of the start of the Peace Pilgrim’s pilgrimage, please share your thoughts about her journey, any experience you had with her or her message and work, or favorite quotes.
We’re all cells in the same body of humanity. —Peace Pilgrim